Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Researcher's Worst Nightmare at Harvard University

Researchers who depend on an ethical process when they submit their work for review may suspect that the process was perverted in some way when their work is rejected, but reviewer anonymity and confidentiality usually prevent the researcher from having access to information necessary to evaluate the process.  In the case of Steve Elmore’s book In Search of Nampeyo: The Early Years, 1875-1892 which now is the subject of a lawsuit brought by Harvard, discovery documents give us a glimpse into their process and it is a researcher’s worst nightmare.  Harvard is still concealing many relevant documents and has put others under a protective order, so I will only discuss here, and link to, documents that are now in the public record.

For those not familiar with the academic peer review process, generally a work is submitted to a journal or book press and the editor sends it out to two or more professionals for review.  Reviewers submit their comments and recommend acceptance, rejection, or acceptance with revisions.  If the manuscript is not rejected, the author will be asked to address reviewers’ concerns and make suggested changes or convince the editor that the suggested changes are not warranted.  After the revised manuscript is submitted,  there are usually a few more exchanges between editor and author, and then the work is ready to go to press. 

Editors and reviewers are expected to adhere to ethical standards.  For instance,  International Standards for Editors  that were adopted at the World Conference on Research Integrity in 2010.    Among the eight standards listed are “Editors should make fair and unbiased decisions independent from commercial consideration and ensure a fair and appropriate peer review process” and “Editors should adopt editorial policies that encourage maximum transparency and complete, honest reporting”.  Peer reviewers also are expected to adhere to ethical standards.  Here are the peer reviewer standards issued by the Committee on Publication Ethics.  Among the standards are to respect confidentiality, declare potential conflicts of interest, not allow reviews to be influenced by the “origins of a manuscript…by characteristics of the author, or by commercial considerations”,  and to “refrain from being hostile or inflammatory and from making libelous or derogatory comments.”

The Peabody Museum Press solicited Steve Elmore to write a book for them on his discovery that many of the modern ceramics in their Keam Collection (purchased from the trader Thomas Keam in 1892) were the work of the great Hopi potter Nampeyo.   This discovery was only made possible by Mr. Elmore's 20 years of reading, research in other museums, and working with contemporary Hopi potters.  Mr. Elmore's first manuscript was submitted in April 2012.  The first reviewer called the editor and they exchanged emails about the manuscript.  Notice that ethical guidelines are breached throughout this exchange, and that the reviewer and the editor are full collaborators in these transgressions of ethical standards.

Reviewer #1 attacks  Mr. Elmore personally, calling him “not capable of comprehending the differences between collections” and “not prepared to do the required amount of research”.   He accuses Mr. Elmore of having ulterior motives, writing the book to promote the pottery he sells, while assuring the editor that dealers who curated exhibits in his museum have no interests in selling their own wares; these guest curators had “no agenda but to give appropriate recognition.”  He insults in advance the many other readers of the book who he asserts cannot distinguish between proper analysis and the “eyewash that is presented here”.  I would dispute reviewer #1 on his specific claims, but for the purposes of this essay, such ad hominem attacks should be a red flag for any editor seeking an objective assessment of a manuscript.  Reviewer #1 and editor Joan O’Donnell also agree that the other two yet to be received reviews, by professional experts in the field, can be discounted in advance as lacking “candor”.  In all the discovery documents we have received from Harvard, there is no evidence that these latter two much more positive reviews were ever taken into consideration.  Joan O’Donnell and her reviewer work together to write reviewer #1’s report, though it was presented to Mr. Elmore as the sole work of this reviewer.  

With regard to the actual arguments Mr. Elmore makes in his book, reviewer #1 rejects Mr. Elmore's use of the art historical connoisseur approach pioneered by Morelli and practiced extensively at Harvard University by Berenson and Sachs, among others.  Although Mr. Elmore  presents an extended discussion of his analysis of the Keam collection pottery, reviewer #1 states that there is “no art historical analysis”.  Though he rejects Steve’s use of an established art historical technique, Ms. O'Donnell and reviewer #1 freely rely on the paranormal technique of “ESP” in order to reject the manuscript.  ("With all the things I had heard about the manuscript, my ESP made me call you", "I'm indebted to you and your ESP").  Joan O’Donnell assures reviewer #1 that she is not uncomfortable rejecting the book, but she will need to "present strong and explicit arguments to my editorial board and the Museum brass”.   They also draft rejection language that is almost identical to the language used more than two years later.  Here is the December 10, 2012 email chain between the editor Joan O’Donnell and the first reviewer, whose name and other information has been redacted by Harvard.  References to the Case Trading Post, snow in Santa Fe, and museum exhibitions point to a museum professional in Santa Fe, New Mexico as this reviewer.

You might think, after reading this email chain, that the book would be summarily rejected.  That is not what happened.  Instead, Mr. Elmore was asked to do a major revision for a more scholarly series that the Peabody Museum Press publishes, the “Papers” series.  Mr. Elmore worked on this revision, answering each review point by point and adding 100 pages of new material, including more background about the techniques he employed in his analysis.  He submitted this revised version in November, 2013, and, with no intervening communication from the press, it was rejected in January, 2014.  Mr. Elmore was given a Formal Notification letter from the board returning to him “all rights” in the manuscript and recommending that he publish elsewhere.  Steve relied on this letter, double checked with two intellectual property attorneys, and then self published his book.  Harvard sued.

In Search of Nampeyo was available for ten months before being put under a temporary injunction until the case is settled.  During those ten months it sold well, received four national book awards, and garnered many positive book reviews.  None of the post publication reviewers agreed with the position adopted by reviewer #1 together with the editor.

I will write more about the specific contract issues that are at stake here in another essay.  For the sake of this essay on standards of professional conduct for editors and reviewers, I will focus on a few issues that came up after the book was rejected, but before the book was published.  Mr. Elmore became aware that Lea McChesney, a research associate at the Peabody Museum and curator at the Maxwell Museum at the University of New Mexico, had been given access to his work.  There are three lines of evidence.  The first is that Lea came into Steve’s shop in December 2014 and told him that she had contracts with the Peabody Museum Press to write on Nampeyo’s work in the Keam collection.  During that visit, she picked up many old Hopi pots and demonstrated to Mr. Elmore  by her questions and remarks that she had detailed knowledge of his arguments.  A few years earlier, in a discussion with Mr. Elmore, she had denied his thesis and has stated that she never uses the type of art historical research techniques used by Mr. Elmore.   Now that she had seen his work, she both agreed with his thesis, was working on her own book, and had "discovered" Nampeyo pottery in the Keam collection herself.

Steve Elmore has additional discovery documents in which Lea tells a friend that she had been writing to Peabody editor Joan O’Donnell and had meetings with her in which they discussed publishing “Elmore’s work” along with her own.  Lea has given a version of her own manuscript to the Peabody Museum, but Mr. Elmore has not yet seen it. we presume it was to be the substance of the second half of the "new" manuscript also containing "Elmore's work."  As Mr. Elmore had not been contacted about this new manuscript, we can only infer that she planned on publishing his discoveries herself.  Mr. Elmore's lawyers have asked Ms. McChesney for the emails mentioned, but so far she has refused to hand them over.  A third line of evidence comes from two emails from a scholar in California who had been asked to review In Search of Nampeyo.   She was confused and asked “Is Steve Elmore’s manuscript the only one in the volume?  I ask this because I have heard that there is a second study of individual hands in the same collection by another scholar.”  Here are the additional discovery documents.

My last example of ethical misconduct by Harvard is the result of a pre-publication announcement which Steve Elmore sent out.  Joan O’Donnell responded that he could not publish the photographs that he took “without prior written permission”.  She said that permission had not been granted, though in fact, it had.  The Formal Notification letter gave Steve Elmore  “all rights” to his manuscript; the definition of manuscript in his contract included both text and illustrations, and Harvard did not retain any rights for itself or restrict Steve’s rights in any way in this letter.  Furthermore, Mr. Elmore had followed all policies stated in the “Permission to Photograph” form he had signed.  However, it turns out that there were other policies that he was never given or informed about in any way.  Staff at the Peabody Museum realized that no one had given him these policies and the photo request contract that accompanied them and they supplied Joan O’Donnell with this information.  Email  correspondence  reveals that Ms. O’Donnell sent museum staff a draft of the letter she intended to send to Mr. Elmore, containing a paragraph about the policies and a link to the photo submission form.  At this point, the book had not been printed and there would have been a opportunity to work with staff at the museum and find a resolution that was satisfying to all, even at such a late date, and even though Mr. Elmore had been formally given "all rights" by The Peabody Museum Press board.  However, Ms O’Donnell removed all reference to the specific policy and the submission form before actually sending the letter to Mr. Elmore.  The editor deliberately hid these policies from Steve and precipitated the current legal situation, as you can see in the email chain from January 12-14, 2015,  So much for “maximum transparency.”

Lest you think that these editorial practices of the Peabody Museum Press are an exception to the general rule of professionalism and ethics practiced everywhere else, look no further than the report of Harvard's expert witness John Byram of the University of New Mexico Press.  Mr. Byram finds nothing to censor in the process Harvard uses or in Ms. O’Donnell’s actions, concluding that “The procedures followed by the Peabody Museum Press staff in this case were consistent with the common practices of similar scholarly institution publishers.” It is not surprising, although it is discouraging, that published ethical standards and assurances from editors of ethical practices are often quite different from the direct experience of researchers who variously described the process to me as a "popularity contest" and a "known scam".   This assertion by John Byram affirms that Harvard's process in this case is viewed as the norm by many editors, even while they publicly assert that they follow different and higher standards.  Here is the Disclosure of Harvard's expert witness.

In retrospect, Steve Elmore, an academic outsider and first time book author who had made a major discovery in the collections of the Peabody Museum was the perfect target for the sort of unethical practices documented in this essay.  My hope is that, after reading this essay, editors and presses will review their own contracts and procedures to see that they meet high standards.  However, my greater concern is for individual researchers who are vulnerable to having the process stacked unfairly against them for political and personal reasons and vulnerable as well to having their research results appropriated and used by others for their own advancement. 

How is an author to protect herself from becoming a victim of presses with these sorts of practices?  Some guidance is available from Mr. Elmore's expert witness Luther Wilson, a retired editor, who worked at many academic presses including the University of New Mexico Press. He faults Harvard for using contracts that are vague, for instance lacking arbitration agreements and termination clauses, and outlines how clear and proper communication between the editor and an author can protect both sides from the kinds of difficulties that arise in this case.  He also supplies a sample contract.  The meat of Luther Wilson's report starts with the "Analysis" on page 6; here is the entire  Luther Wilson report.  Hard as it might be, if you are presented with vague contracts and a lack of honest, open communication, it might be better to just walk away.

 This is the second in a series of blogs about In Search of Nampeyo and Harvard's lawsuit against Steve Elmore. Future essays will deal with the theory, the contracts, and abuse of the legal system.

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